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Last Updated: Friday, 15 June 2007, 17:24 GMT 18:24 UK
Investors in Berlin property blitz
Yvette Shapiro
By Yvette Shapiro
BBC Northern Ireland business correspondent

On a street in south-west Berlin, a beautiful red-brick building stands out from the fairly bland apartment buildings that surround it.

Berlin has become a happy hunting ground for Irish speculators
It's a former children's home, built in 1906 by a German princess. It once resembled a small cathedral, with a pointed roof, but that was blown off in a World War II bombing raid.

Now the building is being transformed into 37 apartments. A two-bedroom flat costs around 130,000. Tenants won't be hard to find for this development.

It's in Steglitz, a solid and affluent suburb of the city, popular with families and professionals.

All of the apartments have been bought by Irish investors from north and south.

"I was intending to launch this project to German buyers," said developer Dr Andreas Pichotta. "But through my contacts with an Irish agent I realised that there's a demand from Irish buyers."

We're buying them for less than they cost to build. It's a buyers' market for the Irish
Mike Morris
County Mayo estate agent
And that demand is huge. More than ten billion euro was invested by foreign buyers in Berlin property last year.

If you set aside the massive acquisitions being made by major international investment funds, and look at moves made by smaller private investors, then the Irish are reckoned to be among the top three nations investing here.

Irish investors have simply been priced out of the market in the Republic and Northern Ireland. And Berlin has offered them a new home for their money.

The city's status as a major European capital and its impeccable legal system makes it a more attractive destination that some other countries.

But considering that Berlin is currently 66 billion euro in debt, and property prices fell by 30% between 1994 and 2004, is property a good investment here? Many seem to think so

"It's for exactly those economic reasons that now is the right time to invest here,"says Mike Morris of County Mayo-based agents, Premier Estates Maloney.

I would never recommend that people buy off a brochure
Dr Andreas Pichotta
Berlin property developer
"We've been operating here for three and half years and in that time we've seen the market stabilise and there are signs that the economy is improving under Chancellor Merkel.

"Prices are currently rock bottom and we're confident of major growth over the next decade. We're taking a long-term view."

Mike Morris flies back and forward from Dublin to Berlin, buying up apartment buildings and commercial property on behalf of Irish investors. Currently, he's handling around 100m euro of investment.

"Some of the buildings we're buying are around ten years old, constructed during the major building boom of the 1990s," he says.

"We're buying them for less than they cost to build. It's a buyers' market for the Irish."

In Berlin, as in Belfast or Dublin, location is the key and local knowledge is vital. The eastern suburb of Friedrichshain is considered to be "up and coming" and the investors are snapping up buildings here. But there are two faces to this district.

One part boasts renovated historic buildings with attractive facades.

Fashionable bars and restaurants have opened, along with organic supermarkets, always a sign that affluent and responsible young professionals have moved in. Two-bedroom flats here cost around 120,000 or more.

Two stops away on the train, and still in Friedrichshain, you'll find huge post-war blocks of flats.

If you want a tenant to leave, you have to give them a year's notice. And even if they default on their rent, you can't throw them out
Calvin McBride
Banbridge-born Berlin resident
These "projects" consist of state-owned housing stock, now being sold off in a bid to tackle the city's debt.

You can pick up flats here for 40,000-50,000 (even less in some other districts).

But there are risks. The area has high levels of unemployment and there's a greater likelihood of tenants with cashflow problems.

"The most important thing for investors is to come to Berlin and find out about the city for themselves," advises Dr Andreas Pichotta. He's surprised that many Irish investors never travel to Berlin before making their purchases.

"There are low-cost flights and the hotels are cheap. You have to come and see the areas, get a feel for the city and decide if you want to invest and, most importantly, where you want to invest. I would never recommend that people buy off a brochure."

His advice is echoed by Berlin resident Calvin McBride. The Banbridge-born theatre director and playwright has lived here for ten years. He acts as a private tour guide, often for groups of investors from the US, Britain and Ireland.

"Researching the area you want to invest in is extremely important," he says. "Somewhere like Friedrichshain is becoming very trendy and will be expensive in ten years time, but you have to be careful where you buy.

"And you must research your tenants very thoroughly. Tenants have very strong rights in Berlin. If you want a tenant to leave, you have to give them a year's notice. And even if they default on their rent, you can't throw them out."

New build
Irish investors bought all the properties on this development

So, if property such a good buy in Berlin, why aren't the local residents doing it themselves? Home ownership levels here are the lowest in Germany, at just 10%.

Achim Sander is a 40-year-old recruitment consultant, running his own business. He lives in the western suburb of Charlottenburg, in a rented apartment built in the 1930.

"I love my apartment, but I don't really see the point of buying," he says. "Berlin is known as the 'city of singles', and I am one of them. I have no children, and even if I did, they might move away and would not want or need a house from me.

"Also, we Berliners like to travel - Germans are the world champions in this regard - and we spend our money on cars. There are other things in live apart from property."

Achim also points to history, explaining that many Berliners are reluctant to put down deep roots in property because of the city's turbulent past, with so many people uprooted through two world wars and the division of the city in 1961.

"These attitudes may change in time, of course," says Achim.

"But I'm in no hurry to buy a flat, I can't see any sign yet that property prices are rising. If that happens, maybe I'll think again."

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